Killing for the Cartel

Police believe East LA high-school dropout Jose Saenz has killed a good friend and the mother of his daughter

“None of the cars were registered in his [real] name,” says detective Gonzales. “He had no ties to anything. We talked to many of the neighbors, and they had no idea. They just knew him as Sam. There were multiple people who said, ‘Nice guy; we never would have known.’”

Detectives also found a high-tech system of monitors that would later provide chilling video evidence pointing directly to Torres’ friend Smiley as his killer.

Anthony Limon, the victim found shot in the back, told detectives he’d agreed as a favor to limo-service owner “Sam” to ferry around four guys in his Hummer limo that night, picking up the first three and taking them to the upscale Elephant Bar Restaurant in suburban Lakewood, where they picked up Smiley. Then it was on to El Parral Club in working-class South Gate, then several hours cruising in Hollywood, then back to Lakewood.

Brian Stauffer
Saenz shoots the fallen Oscar Torres in the face at close range in Torres' front yard
Saenz shoots the fallen Oscar Torres in the face at close range in Torres' front yard

But one of the guys, whom police later determined was Saenz, was restless. He ordered Limon to drive to Montebello, then, at 5 a.m., ordered him to drive to the limo-owner’s home in Whittier.

Later, at a meeting between LA Sheriff’s detective Traci Gonzales and FBI Special Agent Garriola, she showed him the video retrieved from that night. Like a scene out of The Ring, the video flickers with shadowy, ethereal black-and-white images of Saenz smiling and rubbing his hands together gleefully while knocking repeatedly on Torres’ door. At one point, Saenz reaches into his pants pocket to check on something.

Torres is seen in his underwear opening the door, and the men barge in. Limon told police that, once inside, Smiley pulled a gun on Torres, so Limon jumped in front of Torres and pleaded with Smiley to calm down. Instead, Limon was hit on the head, and as he fell, he heard one of the men he’d driven around all night bark out, “Dome him!”—street lingo for a bullet to the head. Before the shot slammed into his back, he recalled to cops, Limon heard someone giggle.

It was all about that vast amount of cash sitting back in Missouri, confiscated three months earlier by the St. Charles County cops. “There was some money owed and a time table,” Garriola says. “Oscar didn’t meet it.”

Torres had already been forced, either by the local Mexican Mafia or the cartels in Mexico, to prove that the money had really been confiscated by the St. Charles deputies, Gonzales says. “We heard through informants he took the letter [a receipt provided by the Missouri cops] and showed it to his people.”

A month after Torres’ murder, Smiley’s cousin Johnny Prado, who can be clearly seen in the video, was arrested for murder and attempted murder; last November, he went to prison for 26 years. His friends told police he was an industrious construction worker, but, Chavarria says, he couldn’t get away from the East LA gangs. “When they get older, they still have an allegiance,” he says. “If they are called upon, they have to step up.”

Smiley is still out there, crossing back and forth between Mexico and California, cashing in and spreading mayhem. “It is like chasing a ghost,” Chavarria notes.

*     *     *

Bogart Bello’s gravesite at the Calvary Mortuary in East LA is on a hill that overlooks the Guadalupe Church on Third Street and gang territory where he grew up with his childhood friends Torres and Ontiveros. His tombstone reads, “Forever Living On the Top,” an homage to his Lott gang. Most of those buried nearby are long dead, and visitors are few. But Efrain Bello tends his brother’s site religiously.

“The police don’t care,” says Bello of his brother’s death. “It’s like, ‘another drug dealer dead.’ I don’t think my life can continue until there is justice for my brother. To me, it was the worst thing that could ever happen.”

Efrain says Bogart Bello and Rolo Ontiveros became big-time dealers because they and their families “were dirt-poor.” He admits that Bogart earned his first $1 million by age 19 and, by 2008, was reaping $25,000 monthly thanks to cocaine funneled from Mexico. Among Bogart’s best coke customers were downtown LA’s lawyer population.

But, Efrain says, his brother tried to go into a legit business by founding Lott Records and producing a number of rap songs, the lyrics of which were often about the Lott gang.

In 2008, Bogart was found dead in the back seat of his Audi Q7 on Chamberlain Street in Mission Hills, a stone’s throw from the 118 freeway. After police turned up few clues, a detective hired by Efrain discovered that Bogart and Smiley had just been involved in a drug deal in which Smiley disliked the quality of the coke and “took it as a great disrespect.”

Chavarria and Gonzales believe Smiley kidnapped and probably killed Bogart, but, LAPD Foothills Division homicide supervisor Jim Freund says, “We can’t prove that he was kidnapped. That came from the brother. . . . Obviously, someone dropped him off in the position” in which he was found, lying in the back seat with a bag pulled over his head.

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